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Legendary Mexican Photographer Gets Her Own Graphic Novel

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Autorretrato con serpientes, Oaxaca, México, 2006 (Self-Portrait with Snakes, Oaxaca, Mexico) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in. | © Graciela Iturbide - Graciela Iturbide exhibition PST LA/LA
Autorretrato con serpientes, Oaxaca, México, 2006 (Self-Portrait with Snakes, Oaxaca, Mexico) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in. | © Graciela Iturbide

At 75 years old, Graciela Iturbide refuses to slow down. In fact, she’s about to become more relevant than ever. The legendary Mexican photographer will have her work displayed in two exhibits this month: at Scripps College “Revolution & Ritual: The Photographs of Sara Castrejon, Graciela Iturbide, and Tatiana Parcero” and the Hammer Museum’s “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1965-1980”. Most importantly, she’ll also finally have her own biography published thanks to Getty Publications.

Photographic: The Life Of Graciela Iturbide” covers the photographer’s life from her conservative childhood in Mexico City through Catholic school, her marriage and subsequent divorce and many of her famous images to the present day. There is one major catch though. The biography is not just a novel but a graphic novel, a combination of letters and imagery influenced by Iturbide’s work.

“It took a while learning to do a script for [a graphic novel],” admits author Isabel Quintero who penned the script with artist Zeke Peña. “It was very stressful because later we learned … it usually takes two to three years to write a graphic novel. We got this project last June.”

It all began with the iguanas. One of Iturbide’s most famous and impressive photos is “Nuestra Señora De Las Iguanas,” Our Lady Of The Iguanas, which features a woman named Zobeida from the town of Juchitán bedecked in a crown of live iguanas sitting on her head. The power and symbolism of the imagery spoke to Quintero and Peña and they built their initial pitch to The Getty around that image.

“It’s a graphic novel, but it’s very experimental,” explains Quintero. “Initially, I wanted animals to tell her story because in Juchitán, she has that image, Nuestra Señora De Las Iguanas.”

Nuestra Señora de Las Iguanas, Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1979 (Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitán, Oaxaca) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in.| © Graciela Iturbide - Graciela Iturbide exhibition PST LA/LA
Nuestra Señora de Las Iguanas, Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1979 (Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitán, Oaxaca) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in.| © Graciela Iturbide

The iguanas hold a conversation about that moment and fantasize about being immortalized along with Zobeida thanks to Iturbide and her lens. The pitch worked and the moment remained in the final draft of the book.

According to Quintero, the graphic novel was initially done in third person, but then shifted more to first person — a feat the duo was able to accomplish because Iturbide continues to create work today.  “She was reading what I was writing, so I didn’t want to speak for her so that was tough,” says Quintero.

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“Photographic” is the second project Quintero and Peña have worked on together in an official capacity. The two met years ago through book publisher Cinco Puntos Press based in El Paso, TX, which published Quintero's first novel, “Gabi, A Girl In Pieces.” They paired her up with Peña, a local artist, to design her book cover.

“The great thing about that project… was that they let Isabel and I communicate directly to work on the cover,” remembers Peña. “It’s not usually what happens in the book industry. Normally the author doesn’t have any correspondence with the cover designer.”

That pairing led to a great rapport between the two and they remained in contact long after Cinco Puntos published Quintero’s book in August 2014. Two years later, Quintero received a phone call from Ruth Lane at The Getty asking her if she was interested in pitching an idea for a biography about Graciela Iturbide that the company wanted to publish. Quintero didn’t think twice about asking Peña to join her on the project.

Zeke Pena working on PhotoGRAPHIC: © J. Paul Getty Trust | Sarah Waldorf - Graciela Iturbide exhibition PST LA/LA
Zeke Pena working on PhotoGRAPHIC: © J. Paul Getty Trust | Sarah Waldorf
Isabel Quintero working on PhotoGRAPHIC: © J. Paul Getty Trust | Sarah Waldorf - Graciela Iturbide exhibition PST LA/LA
Isabel Quintero working on PhotoGRAPHIC: © J. Paul Getty Trust | Sarah Waldorf

The pitch involving the iguanas won over the pitches from three other writers and they immediately got to work. Lane gave Quintero access to the Getty’s private collection of Iturbide’s work, which it has exhibited over the years. Quintero became acquainted with Iturbide’s work from a decade ago while visiting the Getty for one of her exhibits.

“I was able to go into storage and they showed me her photographs one by one,” she recalls, her voice still tinged with the awe she felt the first time she dove into the Getty’s private collection. “They had a PDF of all her work they had and asked me ‘which ones do you want us to pull?’ I marked the ones I wanted them to pull and just box after box of opening and letting me look at the photographs. I got to do that a couple of times. It was a surreal moment that that was my job.”

The book covers Iturbide’s life from birth to the present day. She was born in Mexico City to a traditional family. The eldest of thirteen children, she attended Catholic school and married at 19 as she was expected to. She discovered theater in Catholic school and later attended the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where she learned photography under the guidance of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of the founders of modern photography.

Mujer ángel, desierto de Sonora, 1979 (Angel Woman, Sonora Desert) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in. | © Graciela Iturbide - Graciela Iturbide exhibition PST LA/LA
Mujer ángel, desierto de Sonora, 1979 (Angel Woman, Sonora Desert) Gelatin silver print 16 × 20 in. | © Graciela Iturbide

Little did Iturbide know then that photography would be more than a creative interest. She turned to photography for solace and clarity in 1970 following the death of her daughter Claudia who was only six years old.

“One thing Graciela talks about is her photography is a way to understand the world and understand herself,” explains Quintero. “Whenever she’s photographing, it’s kind of like a mirror, so she’s looking in and looking out at the same time. She was taking photographs, but she found solace in photography when her daughter died. She started photographing death, like, dead children, trying to understand what had happened. For her, it’s a constant understanding. That’s how she sees reality.”

In the book, Quintero and Peña recreate numerous photos from Iturbide’s time in the town of Juchitán, Oaxaca where she met the Lady of the Iguanas. The town is populated by indigenous Zapotec Mexicans. Iturbide lived among them to gain their trust before photographing them and made repeated trips to the town over the years since her first visit.

Pages of PhotoGRAPHIC | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Text: © Isabel Quintero. Illustrations: © Zeke Peña. Photographs: © Graciela Iturbide - PST LA/LA
Pages of PhotoGRAPHIC | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Text: © Isabel Quintero. Illustrations: © Zeke Peña. Photographs: © Graciela Iturbide
Pages of PhotoGRAPHIC | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Text: © Isabel Quintero. Illustrations: © Zeke Peña. Photographs: © Graciela Iturbide - PST LA/LA
Pages of PhotoGRAPHIC | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Text: © Isabel Quintero. Illustrations: © Zeke Peña. Photographs: © Graciela Iturbide 

“It’s important to say she’s really worked with the community that she’s portraying,” explains Peña. “The way that she portrays indigenous people is in a respectful way, clearly, but it’s also in a way where she’s living with these people and communicating with them and it’s definitely with their consent.”

The same can be said of her portrayal of people’s in all of her work whether it be a photo series of Mexican gang members in East L.A., people in the barrios of Tijuana, or of the citizens of La Mixteca in Oaxaca during their annual celebration of “La Matanza De Las Cabras” (The Slaughter Of The Goats).

The latter photo series features images of men, women, and children partaking in the killing and slaughter of goats over a three-month period in the same way it has happened for over 500 years when the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico. A single goat is spared and crowned with a wreath of flowers. The images are visceral and highlight the importance of ritual in a marginalized community, a theme that runs in some of her other photo series as well.

“Magnolia, Juchitan, Oaxaca,” 1986 | © Graciela Iturbide PST LA/LA
“Magnolia, Juchitan, Oaxaca,” 1986 | © Graciela Iturbide
| © Graciela Iturbide PST LA/LA
| © Graciela Iturbide 

“[Iturbide] is adamant that her work is not political,” says Quintero. “She said she doesn’t do it…it’s not her objective to make political photographs. She leaves that to the audience but going into Juchitán and living with the indigenous people and living a particular life in a country where indigenous people are marginalized is pretty political.”

“I really want readers to really appreciate her work but also see how powerful photography can be,” says Quintero. “She talks about there being time and being patient and waiting for an image and not forcing an image. Images take time. A good image isn’t forced. The image comes to you, but you need to be ready and always be constantly aware of the world around you and learn from the world around you. I think that’s a really important lesson for everyone or a really important thing for all of us to consider.”

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Top Image: Isabel Quintero working on PhotoGRAPHIC: © J. Paul Getty Trust | Sarah Waldorf

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